Peatland fires in Indonesia push scale-topping figures. Kalimantan alone produced greater levels of carbon emissions than the entire European Union over the most intense burning months of September and October in 2015. Besides the cost of emissions and hectares burned, research is ongoing into the political economy of the fire and haze, as well as the health impacts and the economic burden the fires present.

The word ‘haze’ is misleadingly benign — in reality, peatland fires produce toxic smoke, containing noxious components such as carbon monoxide, cyanide, ammonia and formaldehyde, in concentrations far beyond safe limits. People breathing this toxic smoke on a prolonged and daily basis during the burning months face serious hazards to their health, food security and well-being.

Here we purposefully step back from the high-level science to bring to life the daily reality of peatland fire and haze. In this photo story, we weave words from the field – in Central Kalimantan and Eastern Riau – around images captured during the peak of the 2015 peatland burning crisis to offer insights into the day-to-day reality for those on the ground — those who experienced the environmental crisis firsthand.

   Low visibility on the road poses hazards for drivers. Björn Vaughn/CIFOR

Claustrophobia in a yellow world

There was no power to protect for those without the capital to leave. The smoke was everywhere, seeping in through the cracks of homes made of wood, through ill-fitting doors, and windows sealed with nothing but batik cloth.

Some residents retreated inside their homes, spending weeks shut indoors without visitors, with poorly understood impacts on physical and mental health. Businesses closed and construction sites shut down, putting many out of work. For others, daily life continued, smelling of smoke and shrouded in yellow. Infringement of the haze on daily well-being is a high-priority concern.

The wealthy can leave. The rest have to stay. The majority of people have nowhere to go and a living to make. Even the wealthy have to wait for the flights to resume.

   While some people locked themselves away, others carried on with their daily lives regardless. Björn Vaughn/CIFOR
   Some chose to wear masks when stepping outside their homes. Björn Vaughn/CIFOR
   Home is no refuge - ash settles on a window pane at Abdul's house. Björn Vaughn/CIFOR

Generations to come

In Tangkiling, just inside the border of the Sebangau National Park, Abdul wanted his family to relocate to Rungan Sari, where an abandoned home could offer better protection for their newborn baby. But his wife insisted that it would be okay to stay — the haze was not a problem, she said, they would be fine, the smoke was just normal. The smog was thick in the house when their baby, Shanti, was born.

Across affected areas, schools closed and children had nowhere to play but in the haze-filled streets, turning minds toward the long-term effects of the crisis on generations to come.

   A world smothered in smog. Björn Vaughn/CIFOR
   Children ride bicycles in the toxic air. Björn Vaughn/CIFOR


For months, Emmanuela Shinta worked tirelessly to raise awareness of the health risks of the haze, until she herself finally ran out of oxygen and collapsed. She is captured here providing medical care and masks to people in the village of Tumbang Nusa. It was a challenge to convince children of the importance of wearing a mask, and to get them to commit to wearing one. Even when they did, the effectiveness of the masks available was likely minimal. Concern for the health impacts of the haze is something that unites diverse stakeholder groups.

   Volunteer Emmanuela Shinta distributing masks to children. Björn Vaughn/CIFOR

Notes from the field

People who didn’t experience the haze last year find it hard to understand what happened. When they see the pictures, perhaps they think a photographic color filter was used. They can’t imagine what it is like to live in such pollution, breathing air full of toxins, devoid of oxygen. One night in my hotel I woke up feeling poisoned and gasping for oxygen. I realized there was no clean breathing air for hundreds of kilometers. What followed was a panic attack, which I got under control by pressing my son’s baby shoes against my chest, lowering my heartbeat.

   Burning peatland near the Central Kalimantan capital. Björn Vaughn/CIFOR

Haze season: The new normal?

For some, haze is the new normal; an additional season in the year. This seemingly easy acceptance can be confusing to the onlooker. It was a shock to see that people continued hanging out outside like on any other day, sitting on plastic stairs chatting, drinking local rice wine, inviting you in for a cup of tea.

For others, the situation was not so easily accepted. Protesters took to the streets and fired messages through social media calling for their right to clean air and clear skies. The “Blue Skies Movement” emerged in Riau’s capital of Pekanbaru, while in Central Kalimantan protests demanded national attention with the slogan “Central Kalimantan is Indonesia too”.

   Teenagers sit outside despite the haze. Björn Vaughn/CIFOR

Multiple actors

Research shows that the process of peatland conversion involves a diverse group of actors. From global demand for commodities such as palm oil, to the local-level actions of fire managers, law enforcement officers, investors and farmers large and small, the drivers of fire and haze are many and varied. Simplified framings of the problem that do not account for the diverse groups involved may compromise the need to develop sound policy solutions.

   Many actors are involved in peatland conversion. Björn Vaughn/CIFOR
   Smallholder farmers need support to practice fire-free peatland clearing. Photo credit: Björn Vaughn/CIFOR
   Oil palm kernels. Björn Vaughn/CIFOR

An entry point for change

CIFOR research shows that many solutions have been proposed and pursued, and that different actors each have their own distinct preferences. Enforcement is preferred for large players, while smallholders require support to find alternatives to using fire as a tool to clear peatlands.

However, there may be one area in which all stakeholders can find common ground: a shared concern for the local health impacts of the haze. Health impacts are likely severe, though poorly quantified. Authorities gave a death toll of 19 from last year’s toxic smoke, while researchers have estimated that it triggered more than 100,000 early deaths in the region, including around 90,000 in Indonesia.

Can a shared concern for public health become the cornerstone of a campaign for change?

   With construction companies shut down in the smog, builder Slamet turns to casting his net. Björn Vaughn/CIFOR

One year on

A year after the fires, positive action for change is underway. A new moratorium on converting peatland to oil palm is under discussion, and the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) was set up earlier in the year with a mandate to rewet and restore two million hectares of degraded peatland by 2020. Initiatives are now being led by provincial governments, donor communities and the private sector to reduce fire risks and support fire prevention. Campaigns by advocacy groups are up and running, and organic cases of self-organization for fire mitigation already exist at the local level.

Public conversations on forest protection are also gaining traction. A photo exhibition titled ‘I am the Forest’ (featuring contributions from the photographer for this piece) is now on display in the Rungan Sari forest area outside Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan’s capital city. For some, the exhibition is a reminder of what is left and must be preserved. For others, especially urban young people, it is a basic introduction to forest life, as many are simply unaware of what is at stake.

With growing emphasis on collaboration and moving beyond the blame, it is actions like these that can contribute to meaningful change, and secure a fire-free future for all.

   Students visit the 'I am the Forest' photo exhibition, now on display outside Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan. Björn Vaughn/CIFOR
   A play on words highlights the need for conversation between actors in conversion and conservation of forests at the 'I am the Forest' exhibition. Björn Vaughn/CIFOR
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Topic(s) :   Blue carbon, mangroves and peatlands Deforestation Peatlands Editors’ Choice 2016 Wetlands Fire & haze Indonesian Wetlands